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UW System regents reject deal with Republicans on DEI and funding

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UW System regents reject deal with Republicans on DEI and funding

Dec 08, 2023 | 9:50 pm ET
By Baylor Spears
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Republicans and University of Wisconsin System come to deal on DEI and funding
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Jay O. Rothman, president of the University of Wisconsin System, speaks during the UW Board of Regents meeting hosted at Union South at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison)

Update: The UW System Board of Regents rejected the DEI and funding deal negotiated by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and the UW System in a 9-8 vote on Saturday.

Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement that it’s clear that regents were divided on the proposal and “have immense concerns about this process and the difficult position they were put in, and are all committed to their charge—doing what’s best for our past, present, and future students, faculty, and staff, and the institutions that have defined our state for generations.”

Evers said he understands and supports the regents’ decision. 

“I look forward to this discussion continuing in the weeks and months ahead,” Evers said. “I urge legislative Republicans to remain in those conversations so we can work together and find common ground to do what’s best for the UW System, including investing in the UW-Madison engineering building.” 

Evers also called on legislative Republicans to release the UW System pay raises that lawmakers are withholding. 

Vos criticized the regents’ vote in a statement.

“It’s a shame they’ve denied employees their raises and the almost $1 billion investment that would have been made across the UW system, all so they could continue their ideological campaign to force students to believe only one viewpoint is acceptable on campus,” Vos said. 

Wisconsin Democrats, who widely shared a petition that urged regents to reject the deal on Friday, celebrated the regents’ actions. The petition received over 1,100 signees in less than 24 hours. 

“Students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members sent a clear message to the UW Board of Regents — we must fight for campuses where everyone is welcomed and feels they belong,” Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) said in a social media post. She thanked the regents for rejecting the deal and said the work will continue.

UW System President Jay Rothman, who said Friday he was recommending the board approve the deal, said he was disappointed but respects the decision.

As a part of a deal made with Republican lawmakers, the University of Wisconsin System has agreed to “reimagine” diversity, equity and inclusion programs and freeze staffing at the school. Republican legislators have agreed, in exchange, to release UW staff raises they had previously blocked and to fund several infrastructure projects, including a long sought new engineering building.

The deal announced on Friday comes after months of the UW System and other stakeholders urging lawmakers to fund the state’s higher education priorities as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Republicans focused on targeting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

UW System President Jay Rothman called the negotiations “difficult” during a Wisconsin Policy Forum event on Friday. 

“It was a compromise,” Rothman said. “We had to address the concerns that the Speaker was raising, and we tried to do that in a way that created something that I think is in the best interest of the Universities of Wisconsin.” 

Rothman said he recommended the deal for approval to the UW System Board of Regents, which is scheduled to vote on it tomorrow

Vos focused on DEI in a statement about the deal, saying that there has been a growing emphasis on concepts that “amplify ideas of division, exclusion and indoctrination” at the state’s higher education institutions. He said it’s always been the aim of Assembly Republicans to dismantle bureaucracy related to DEI and reprioritize student success and achievement. 

“I’m proud that Wisconsin is the first state with divided government to make real progress on reducing these negative influences across our public higher education institutions,” Vos said. 

Under the deal, the UW System will freeze the number of DEI positions and over two academic years “realign” a third of those positions to focus on academic and student success more broadly. 

The System has also agreed to keep the number of positions across its campuses the same from  Jan. 1, 2024 through Dec. 31, 2026 with exceptions for faculty, staff who directly support students or research, jobs funded through gifts or grants and part-time student employees. 

Democrats and other stakeholders have been critical of the deal for trading concessions on DEI for funding from the state, including some money that had already been approved by lawmakers.   

Rep. Jodi Emerson, the ranking member of the Assembly Colleges and Universities committee, said the deal is “pretty disheartening.” She noted that the committee has talked a lot about free expression, free speech and diversity of thought this year and that the only way to achieve that is by having a diverse population. She said the deal is counter to that goal. 

“I’m afraid what this deal says to Black and brown people and other minorities is that ‘you’re not really welcome on campus,’” Emerson said. “It’s a shame for legislative Republicans to hold hostage that $32 million,  raises, the critical building projects that need to happen across our UW System, whether that’s demolishing buildings or utilities or the engineering building.”

The Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement on Thursday that they were “appalled and ashamed” that the state was seeking to remove DEI from its higher education system. 

“We ask the question, who was at the table making negotiations on behalf of our black and brown students on campus? Who decided to undervalue our students and staff of color by setting a price tag on their inclusion on our campuses? Were our students and students’ interests even considered?” lawmakers asked in a statement.  

The Wisconsin Democratic Senate and Assembly caucuses both released statements ahead of the announcement criticizing the deal. Their statements came after Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahuieu told reporters that Vos and the UW System were close to a deal on funding.

Republican lawmakers were split on withholding the pay raises and tying their release to DEI demands. In October, Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) said after a Joint Committee on Employment Relations (JCOER) meeting where Republicans initially withheld the pay raises that UW employees shouldn’t be penalized for decisions made by leaders of the university system. LeMahieu said on Monday in an interview with WisEye that he disagreed with withholding the raises.

The UW System will also commit to ensuring there is “strict compliance” with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. in eliminating affirmative action in its admissions process across all institutions, and it will eliminate any requirement for a diversity statement in admissions applications. 

Under the plan the UW System will also develop and implement a module about freedom of expression for incoming undergraduate students and support a Republican bill that guarantees admission to UW System schools for the top 10% of academic performers, except at UW-Madison which will automatically admit the top 5% of Wisconsin high school students. 

UW-Madison will also need to seek “philanthropic support” for the creation of a position that will focus on “conservative political thought, classical economic theory or classical liberalism.” It is also not going to renew its Target of Opportunity Program, which focuses on helping academic departments recruit faculty who enhance the quality and diversity of the department, after this school year. The university will in its place start a program focused on recruiting faculty who have demonstrated the “ability to mentor ‘at risk’ and/or underrepresented students to achieve academic success and who have demonstrated academic and research excellence.” 

Rothman said the changes won’t change the UW System’s core values around diversity and inclusion. 

“We will not lose sight of students from underrepresented groups, but we also need to look at students who have different political ideologies… The diversity and inclusion considers them as well,” Rothman said. “[We’ve] neither eliminated DEI positions, nor will DEI going forward be entirely business as usual. I think it’s evolutionary… No one will lose their jobs. Those 43 positions will be realigned to focus more broadly on student success.”

Emerson, acknowledging that Rothman is committed to DEI, said it is a slippery slope, and that while he may be committed a future leader may not be and questioned what happens when the parameters have been changed. 

“It starts with naming it something different, and eventually, you know, the name and the position, and the intentions are different. What does this look like, five years from now? 10 years from now?” Emerson said. 

Removing DEI entirely from the state’s campuses is an eventual goal for Wisconsin Republicans and conservatives.

“We applaud Speaker Vos’s efforts to reduce & eventually eliminate discrimination through DEI from the UW campuses,” Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative law group, declared in a social media post Friday. “Today’s deal is a victory in a state with divided government,” 

Rothman also emphasized that the deal would free up $800 million in funding for the system.

Under the proposed deal, the employee relations committee will release UW System pay raises by Dec. 31 and the Joint Finance Committee will be required to approve the UW System’s workforce plan, which Republicans told the UW System to develop in order to get the $32 million that was cut from its budget earlier this year in an attempt to end DEI.

The Legislature will also approve several infrastructure projects. UW-Madison will receive approval to renovate three dorm buildings and to construct a new engineering building, which was the system’s top priority during the past budget cycle. UW-Whitewater, which is in Vos’ district, will receive funds to renovate two academic buildings and the UW System will receive $45.4 million for demolition of unused facilities. 

Several stakeholders pointed out that some of the funds the university will receive were being blocked by Republican lawmakers.

Jon Shelton, a UW-Green Bay professor and AFT-Wisconsin vice president of higher education, said in a statement on Thursday that the pay raises should not come at the price of DEI. He pointed out that Republican lawmakers had already allocated and approved the pay raises during the state budget process. 

“Our state holds a $4 billion surplus. The UW System shouldn’t have to cave to Republican demands to force conservative ideology into our campuses’ marketplace of ideas in order to receive a miniscule portion of the funding we desperately need to ensure student success.”

Emerson said she encourages the Board of Regents to take a moment and have conversations with professors, students and other stakeholders before approving the deal. 

The UW System Board of Regents is scheduled to meet to vote on the deal on Saturday.